Writing a novel that covers the lives of real people requires some neat literary skill. Life doesn’t always follow a dramatic curve that creates tension and resolution at the required intervals. In her new novel, “Valiant Gentlemen,” Sabina Murray flashes her considerable literary talent and pens a fascinating, moving and epic account of the friendship between two men over 33 years.
Murray begins her novel in the Congo Free State in 1886, two years after Irishman Roger Casement met the British artist and explorer, Herbert Ward. From there, she follows the intersecting lives of these valiant gentlemen as they weave their way through history.
Passing through four continents (Europe, Africa, North America and South America) and introducing dozens of characters, Murray leads us to the tragic ending of Casement and Ward’s friendship in World War I. Casement appeals to Germany for support of Irish Independence while Ward fights Germany and sends two sons to war. Once Casement’s contact with the Germans is exposed, Ward disavows his old friend as a traitor and refuses to help save his friend from execution.
Knowing the tragic ending beforehand does nothing to diminish the novel’s excitement. Written in the present tense serves the novel well. History feels real, as if it is being lived in the moment, in all its confusion and uncertainty. Through the lens of her characters, Murray shows how the moments of history affect and change real lives. Murray enriches her novel by including several other historical figures - Joseph Conrad, King Leopold, Henry Morton and Arthur Conan Doyle.
With a wide canvas of history before her, Murray explores the notions of national identity, foreign rule and resistance, love, personality, friendship and betrayal, social justice, suffrage, cruelties suffered by indigenous peoples, and of course war. It’s a difficult trick to allow your characters to age and wrestle with self-doubt and the disappointments of the world. Murray carries this off convincingly.
The novel gets a considerable lift when Ward’s future wife, American heiress Sarita Sanford, is introduced. Sarita is the family backbone, providing the family’s finances and raising five children, while understanding the nature of Ward’s friendship with Casement. Ward himself is oblivious to Casement’s homosexuality, which is a crime.
Murray won the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction for her previous novel. She delivers on promise of that award with a splendid novel of a complicated friendship.